Who Is (Not) My Neighbor?

Preacher on July 17, 2016 at United Church of Christ Congregational, Wallace, Idaho

Based on Luke 10:25-37


There were a lot of things about our vacation that were really good, and I trust you don’t need me to tell you that spending time with 4-year-old Garth was at the top of the list. But there was also the joy of time with his parents, and my brother, nieces and their kids, seeing dear friends and a 93-year-old aunt. And of course that little side trip that Garth and I took to Ben and Jerry’s was the perfect cherry on top of it all. But I have to tell you that another piece of vacation that I appreciated deeply was being away from the news for awhile. I never feel like I’m adequately informed, but we have a routine that keeps me at least partially current on the state of the world. For two weeks, we had little to none of that, and there was a refreshing reprieve in the silence. But there came a point that I began to see things on Facebook that told me yet more ugly stuff was happening, so I ventured out of my cocoon long enough to ask the others what was up. Which is when they told me about the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge by police officers, followed closely by the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, that shooting having been streamed live by his girlfriend and viewed by thousands, probably millions by now. The next morning, I don’t remember if it was Facebook or an email that gave me the news about the shooting deaths of 5 police officers in Dallas, by a sniper during an otherwise peaceful protest of Sterling and Castile’s deaths. As my stomach turned and the bile began to rise in my mouth, I knew my escape was over, and I began to feel – yet again – the need to find some words that could help me, and maybe others, deal with the violence that seems to be ripping our country apart. Where is it coming from and what do we do about it and how do we make it stop? And all of that was before we watched a driver storm his truck through the Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France. And before the attempted military coup in Turkey. What are we doing to each other and ourselves? And where is this headed? I know it sounds simplistic and naive, but I keep hearing the voice of Rodney King so many years ago as Los Angeles went up in flames saying, can’t we all just get along?

One of the things I’ve been uniquely aware of in this round of violence is the importance of being able to put a face on the news that is sometimes so overwhelming and distressing that I’d like to stay numb to it. That’s been less possible for me with these incidents because of where they took place. When Ben, Dave and Kim were telling me about the Minnesota shooting, they didn’t say it took place in the Twin Cities or outside Minneapolis or in a suburb of St. Paul; they told me it happened in Falcon Heights, which is a place where Ben served as an interim minister about the time we were married. I remember a church building there, worshiping in the sanctuary and attending coffee hour in the hall; I remember a millionaire who bought his suits at Penney’s and drove old cars. Philando Castile’s death is less anonymous to me than the zillion other recent shooting incidents because that piece of my history has opened the door and let it in. And I went through a similar experience on Friday when I began to see Facebook posts from a friend of ours who lives in Turkey, as he wrote about a possible coup attempt. Saturday morning I rose to his description of the dust settling and frustration about all the talk of a democratically elected president when the election was and the whole system is overflowing with corruption. Despite Mick’s best efforts to get us to visit, we haven’t been there, but we’ve heard a lot about Turkey through his work and writings; and I wear these scarves because of the work his first wife did to help Turkish women support themselves and their families after devastating earthquakes. These victims have names and faces, stories and lives; and while I don’t want to drown in the enormity of it all, I know I’m more likely to be moved to compassion and maybe even action, when the suffering is real to me.

Somewhere in the midst of all of these events and my ponderings about them, I watched an amazing TED Talk that just happened to come up in my cue at the moment I needed it most (I Survived a Terrorist Attack. Here’s What I Learned). It was a talk by Gill Hicks, an Australian woman who was living and working in London and just happened to be on the subway eleven years ago, standing hauntingly close to a 19-year-old suicide bomber. She said that she didn’t see him, but he must have seen her and all of them as his hand hovered over the detonation switch. She said, “I know it wasn’t personal. He didn’t set out to kill or maim me, Gill Hicks… he didn’t know me. No. Instead, he gave me an unwarranted and an unwanted label. I had become the enemy. To him, I was the “other,” the “them,” as opposed to “us.” The label “enemy” allowed him to dehumanize us. It allowed him to push that button. And he wasn’t selective. Twenty-six precious lives were taken in my carriage alone, and I was almost one of them.” She then went on to describe the anonymity that all of the passengers were part of before the blast, playing by subway rules and not making direct eye contact, not talking to anyone. Once the darkness of the blast began to clear, all of that changed as one by one the survivors joined in a kind of roll call, letting others around them know they were there. “I’m Gill. I’m here. I’m alive. OK.” She said, “I didn’t know Alison. But I listened for her check-ins every few minutes. I didn’t know Richard. But it mattered to me that he survived.”

Stranger or family, enemy or friend, them or us, it matters how we look at others, whether we let them in or bar the door, whether we reach out a hand hoping to make contact in the darkness or walk away and do all we can to keep to ourselves. I’m struck by the way these questions echo throughout today’s Gospel reading. A lawyer asked Jesus a question that led him to summarize the heart and soul of the Jewish faith with the words we hear as the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus told him to put those words into action and he’d be all set, he came back and asked who his neighbor was. I’ve always suspected he was really asking who his neighbor wasn’t, where he could draw the line, who he needed to love and who he could turn away from. At which point, Jesus told a story of a man who walked the dark and dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, alone, where he was attacked, stripped, beaten and left for dead. While he was lying in the ditch, bleeding out, two people walked by – first a priest and then a Levite; they saw him there, crossed to the other side of the road and kept on going. Two of his own community turned their backs and walked away. It was the third, the Samaritan, the enemy, who stopped, bound the wounds, and placed the victim on his animal, carried him to an inn and left an open tab from which the man’s needs could be tended. Jesus then asked, which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? To which the lawyer said, the one who showed mercy; and Jesus replied, go and do likewise.

Who is the neighbor that I am called to love as I love myself? According to Jesus, it might be just about anybody. Stranger and family, enemy and friend, them as well as us. In the story Jesus told, the one who acted as a neighbor was the one they labeled enemy. In a time and place where the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan, the suggestion that such a person could be the exemplary one was highly offensive; like a Muslim showing mercy to the very ones who want to either brand them or deport them. What Jesus cares about is the mercy, not the religious, ethnic or political distinctions we make so pivotal.

Believe it or not, I’m not suggesting that we try to bring an end to the violence that seems to be at least as threatening as last summer’s Ebola outbreak; but I am suggesting that we make an effort to increase the mercy that’s visible and active in our lives. What would it look like if we made a concerted effort to love our neighbors – stranger and family, enemy and friend, them as well as us – to live mercy, to offer kindness, to reach out a hand in the darkness in the hope of making contact with another?

Anne Lamott suggests that “we must respond with a show of force equal to the violence and tragedies, with… mercy force… Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering, including ourselves. Patience with a deeply irritating provocative mother. Two dollar bills to the extremely annoying guy at the intersection who you think maybe could be working, or is going to spend your money on beer…” She asks, “Do you have your last computer on the shelf, that you really don’t have time or effort to take to the after-school program in your town–but you are going to do today? Go flirt with the oldest people at the market–tell them you are glad to see them… Can a few of you band together–just for today–and carry someone to (a) healing?.. To a meeting? Help a neighbor who is going under, maybe band together to haul their junk to the dump? Shop for sales for a canned food drive at the local temple or mosque? How about three anonymous good deeds?” (Facebook, July 15, 2016) We don’t have to take on all the pain and suffering in the whole world; we aren’t even asked to. Just show mercy and kindness where we are and let God take it from there.

I want to close by going back to Gill Hicks and her experience after the London bombing. She spoke of the arrival of a first responder at her side after about an hour, and of relaxing into their care. Reflecting on their willingness to put themselves at risk for her, she said “Throughout all the chaos, my hand was held tightly. My face was stroked gently. What did I feel? I felt loved. What’s shielded me from hatred and wanting retribution, what’s given me the courage to say: this ends with me is love. I was loved.

“I believe the potential for widespread positive change is absolutely enormous because I know what we’re capable of. I know the brilliance of humanity. So this leaves me with some pretty big things to ponder and some questions for us all to consider: Is what unites us not far greater than what can ever divide? Does it have to take a tragedy or a disaster for us to feel deeply connected as one species, as human beings? And when will we embrace the wisdom of our era to rise above mere tolerance and move to an acceptance for all who are only a label until we know them?”

Stranger and family, enemy and friend, them as well as us. Jesus calls us to show mercy, to live compassion, to reach out a hand in the dark in the hope of making contact with another. May it be so. Amen.


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    • Ingrid Cichoski on July 19, 2016 at 6:10 am

    Dear Alice, Thank you for your wonderful post. We, too, are on vacation. Yes, we are in Costa Rica. And the real world seems at a remove. Soon enough we will be back to our regular lives and your words will help us deal with the horrors that seem all too with us. So glad you had a great visit. Ingrid ( and Chip)

    • Cathy Barker on July 19, 2016 at 6:19 am

    You are spreading love and mercy with this piece, Alice. Thank you for weaving together these powerful words with your own eloquence to make a difference.

  1. Many thanks to you both for your kind words. Enjoy that beautiful country, Ingrid, and come home bite-free!

    • Dick on July 20, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Great message, Alice! Thanks.

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